In the first chapter of author and professor Darcey Steinke’s latest work—the meditation on menopause Flash Count Diary—she states, “Like the Hulk, I don’t have symptoms or a condition; I am in the midst of a rupture, a metamorphosis, an all-encompassing and violent change.” We experience this change with Steinke, as she details her hot flashes and explores the psychological and spiritual effects they have on her. “With every flash, my psyche is pushed to grasp what it does not want to let itself know: that it is not immortal. This is terrifying. It’s also a rare opportunity, if faced directly, to come to terms with the limitations of the self.” And face it directly she does. Steinke examines what she refers to as the “history” of her body—as a daughter, a mother, a lover—as well as her “fraying” femininity and her time spent researching the few other mammals who go through menopause, most notably female killer whales.
What results is a sharply nuanced memoir, and a manifesto on the rarely-written-about third stage of a woman’s life. In Steinke’s exploration of her own often-lonely transition, she finds a sense of hopefulness in the strength of the post-menopausal killer whales who lead their pod societies, as well as in the work of the trans community. She traces the shame and distress many women feel when confronted with their aging bodies back to the patriarchal structures that treat this transition as inherently negative.
Steinke welcomed me into her Brooklyn home on a cold, early-winter evening. Jazz was playing softly; candles flickered on the shelves of her floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Over mugs of tea, we discussed writing about the female body, the positive changes menopause has brought to her life, working for the matriarchy, and her hopes for how future generations may more positively experience their journey through menopause.
—Elizabeth Lothian for Guernica
Guernica: You start Flash Count Diary very centered on the body, with a searing description of the physicality of a hot flash. What was the process like, finding the language to express those physical sensations?
Darcey Steinke: Well, I’ve always written about the body—that’s the female body—and when I teach, I teach “Stay on the body.” I feel like that’s a good way to get going, but then as you get to be older it’s harder to write about the body, because the culture is less interested in a female body as it ages. So, I was searching for a way to write about the body again. I was sort of stymied. I was like, well, I’ve written about sex, but I’m not quite as interested in sex, so I don’t really want to write about it as much anymore. How can I write about the body now in a way that will be compelling for me and for readers? I started to realize, wow, what’s happening to my body is fascinating—it’s not just something that’s shameful and terrible. That’s when I started to keep this flash count diary, and that was the beginning of finding the language of each hot flash. I would write half a page or a page, trying to be detailed about the sensations. I had the feeling I hadn’t read anything about how nuanced a hot flash was, and so I decided I would give myself this exercise of working with the language of the body.
Guernica: While I haven’t yet gone through menopause, I have had seizures, and I found myself relating to much of your writing about the mental and spiritual effects the flashes have on you—specifically, when you write that you feel for the first time “divided, split into soul and body, that there is a me, lonely and frantic, who wants out of my corporeal form,” and that during a flash you “reside in the liminal…feel that the membrane between me and another world is worn thin.” Did you expect entering menopause—often considered a physical change—would also trigger these mental and spiritual insights?
Steinke: I didn’t really know what to expect, because I didn’t really know that much. I knew around your fifties you stopped menstruating, and then, because I’d seen people make fun of hot flashes, I knew about that. But I didn’t really know that much about the passage at all.
I sometimes think to myself about when I started to menstruate. If it was treated slightly differently by society, if it seemed less like, “You’re now a sexual being, men can now prey on you,” and actually more a thing about you, I could have felt like it was a cool passage. Once I started to go through menopause, I thought, there’s a way in which this is medicalized and treated as a phase of life that’s negative, but that’s not what it feels like to me! It feels like it’s hard and a struggle, but I could tell from the beginning that it was going to be profound. You get so used to cycling that, after thirty years, you get out and it’s kind of like getting out of prison. You can’t believe it’s really happening, and at first it is very disorienting. It seems very wide-open.
Something as big as not cycling—here’s where your hormones rise, here’s where your hormones drop—is going to have a profound effect on you. Any way you decide to go through menopause is good, any way you decide to have a baby is good, but I was lucky that [when I gave birth] I had a short labor so I didn’t have to have any pain meds. That was a very powerful experience. I was only in hard labor for two hours; I was able to be completely present, and, I mean, the pain was excruciating, but it was also just amazing. I feel similar about my menopause. I didn’t do anything to treat it, and it was sometimes a struggle, but it was also incredible.
I needed those hot flashes. They were kind of like graduate school—a system of training to move you from the fertile woman you were to the new phase. That’s when the spiritual part comes in. If you’re just going to say, “That’s a symptom, I’m going to medicate it,” it’s hard to feel spiritual about that, right? But if you think, “Okay, this is a journey that my body’s going through, this is a process,” well, that is a spiritual journey that you’re going to take with yourself and your body. You have to take it back to yourself as a life progression, and pull it away from the way it’s been treated in the culture.
Guernica: You note that “the brokenness that the hot flashes and sleeplessness have wrought feels real—a realness that encompasses a wider emotional sweep, a larger sense of the world, and a keener awareness of my own self,” and then go on to speak with Dr. Pauline Maki, of the Center of Research on Women and Gender at the University of Minnesota, who tells you that that “one unexpected side effect of hot flashes is greater empathy.” I thought that was such a beautiful idea—that what can happen through the hardship of this journey with your body is gaining a greater empathy. Has that sense of empathy stayed with you?
Steinke: I definitely think that’s true. There is a way in which menopause makes you feel like a more universal creature. Partly because the whole drive to be this sexy person that gets impregnated and has a baby is kind of done, right? So, you can step away from that. And then, I think, it’s been a progression because the struggles of menopause have made me feel more empathetic. I had a herniated disc, and I just had back surgery two months ago. Now that I’ve experienced that, too, it’s a whole new world of realizing the pain of others. But it brings a lot of empathy.
Guernica: During a sleepless night, you first come across an article about female killer whales going through menopause. They “not only live thirty to fifty years after menopause but they also lead their pods…particularly in times when salmon is scarce…All whales, even younger males, choose to follow the post-reproductive females.” I was blown away by that.
Steinke: I know. They’re so cool, they’re so badass. It’s inspirational.
Guernica: I found such a sense of hopefulness after reading that scene—that this could be what our society could be like.
Steinke: I know! We’ve got to work for the matriarchy!
Guernica: Do you think you were pulled to the killer whales because of that sense of a positive transformation? And because you didn’t see that same sense of positivity and hopefulness represented with women writing about menopause?
Steinke: At the beginning, I struggled. I was disoriented. I was like, outside of cycling, who am I? I was having hot flashes; I was having trouble sleeping. And then when you look around, when you Google it, the list of symptoms is unbelievably depressing. Occasionally you’ll hear somebody in the press talk about it, or some celebrity, but it was hard for me to find something positive that I could admire and latch on to. So, when I found the whales, that was the first positive thing about menopause I had found—which is weird, that I had to go away from the human world and find an animal.
I got obsessed with these animals, and the matriarchs helped me move through my own menopause. The way that the fifty-plus-year-old females lead is just so inspiring. That to me was the first really purely joyful, positive thing that I had been able to latch on to about menopause. Being a writer, I was trying to read all these books about it—there are two I like: The Change by Germaine Greer and Break of Day by Colette—but so many books I found misogynist, either internalized misogyny or outright misogyny. So that was another thing that turned me inward. What am I going to do? How am I going to figure this out? It was like, you’re on your own if you want to go through this in a positive way. You’re completely on your own.
Guernica: While you discussed reading the many “hormone therapy apologists,” I was struck by the idea of women faking desirable characteristics through diets, hair dye, breast augmentations, and moving away from the natural because of its complexities—here my mind goes to the medicalization of birth. In many ways it feels like, for the arc of menopause to be respected and seen in a positive light, and for the post-menopausal woman to be seen as useful and necessary for the betterment of society, this whole system of faking characteristics and trying to manipulate nature needs to be dismantled.
Steinke: If you don’t have hormones, you should take hormones so you can keep looking young! You’re supposed to stop at around forty and just freeze. And if you ever go away from that, well, that’s when you stop trying, which is just so ridiculous. You’re going to get older! I think some women are helped by it—it’s a personal decision—but I think a lot of taking hormones has been about looking young, or thinking that you should look young, or thinking that they might keep you appealing to your partner.
Guernica: To seem more desirable.
Steinke: Yeah, but it’s also a fake idea. It’s a fake desire, because the sexiest thing is authenticity! If you’re going to be faking it up to be desired, maybe some people like that, but that just seems insane to me. I did this reading at the National Arts Club recently, and we were talking about depression—which people say is a menopausal symptom—and somebody in the audience said, “Well, we wouldn’t be depressed if there wasn’t so much shame and horror around menopause. That’s why we’re depressed!” And I was like, I should have thought of that myself, of course that’s true! I know some women who struggle with depression do have a hard time, but part of the reason there’s depression is because menopause has been treated like a disease. That’s why women are sad.
Guernica: If everything in society is telling you that this is the end, and the only way to treat it is to try to freeze yourself in time, obviously—
Steinke: You’re going to get depressed! It’s just kind of crazy to me that people are like, “Depression is a big part of menopause.” Of course it is!
Guernica: You find a sort of kinship with several trans and nonbinary people and writers, including Max Wolf Valerio, who wrote about his transition from a lesbian feminist to a heterosexual man. You write, “Valerio feels and acts out his anger, and for the first time in his life he is better able to stand up for himself. I also feel angry more often, a menopausal condition that doctors classify as hormonal irritability but that I’m starting to see as a gateway to authenticity.” And Valerio writes, “One of the most predictable outcomes of female-to-male transition is an increase in intolerance for bad behavior from others.” A gateway to authenticity! An increase in intolerance for bad behavior! These, like greater empathy, seem like fantastic side effects to me. Do you think that if more women embraced these changes—instead of focusing on the more superficial changes the body goes through—our society, like the pods of killer whales, would benefit?
Steinke: I do think some women struggle with some of the symptoms, and I think they should get care and they should figure out what’s best for them, but that doesn’t mean the whole thing is negative. I love the trans memoirs. They were so helpful. And I love The Testosterone Files by Max Wolf Valerio. His transition—I identified with that more than any other book I read about menopause, which is just kind of amazing. He goes on testosterone and the way his body changed and his feelings and his thoughts…I really identified with it a lot, the strength of it, the power of it.
I think it’s hard to talk about, because a lot of times menopausal women have been denigrated by saying, “Oh, they look like men,” but that’s not what I’m talking about. Menopause is a transition that is inevitable and quite powerful. You come into your strength, and you don’t give a fuck in a way that seems like a gain. And in the trans memoirs I read, the transitioning people are afraid in their struggle, but they don’t see it as this negative thing. They’re excited about what’s going to happen, and that’s how I wanted to feel about menopause. After this hormonal transformation is completed, where will I be? I won’t be my old self. I’ll be a different self, but that self is not this sad sack self. This self is a new self. And so those memoirs really helped me, more than any menopause book I read, and I felt really super-grateful to the trans community for their leadership—about how to be in a body, how to make really strong choices about the kind of body you want to have.
Guernica: While there was obviously a great deal of research that went into writing this book, there are these slivers of moments strung throughout that rely heavily on descriptions of scenery—a walk home from the subway on a dark Brooklyn winter night, the sidewalk littered with dog shit and chicken bones; a mother and her young daughter watching you swimming by the lake’s edge.
Steinke: I love close detail. It’s my favorite thing, and I started as a poet, so beautiful writing is something that I really love to try and do myself. The book is really about me, right? I wanted to try and start the chapters with something about myself, and then at the end, if I wasn’t going to have a scene where I was in it, I should have a description of some struggle I was having. I really thought that was important, because it’s not a medical book or a technical book. I’m only the expert on myself and my own menopause, right? So, I really tried to stay on the body and stay on my own journey, so that’s where I wanted to write about myself in the world. I tried to have scenes that were emotional, visceral. Me moving in the world.
Guernica: You detail an afternoon spent with your husband in Paris, at a bathhouse where you realize perhaps services other than spa treatments are offered. After an anxious massage you return to the sauna: “Mike was pink and glittery with sweat. He radiated an animal immanence that was, frankly, intoxicating. I felt an unbearable longing for my old monkey, his chaotic chest hair, his giant big toes, the swell of his belly. I wanted Mike less as a man than as a human. I wanted the disembodied part of Mike, the one I am getting to know as we age.” I found this pull you had to your partner to be quite beautiful. And it made me think about the greater purpose of aging, and specifically the changes the body experiences as we age—that perhaps the ultimate goal, the highest level of being, is the ability to love someone without the draw of physical desire.
Steinke: I feel like all phases are cool, but it can’t really be about hot sex the entire time. I myself feel a lot of freedom in a loosening up of my own sexuality. My sexual desires would derail my life—sometimes through things I actually did, which were stupid, and then sometimes just through my thoughts. And the fact that I’m 50 percent free of that now, that’s really good. It’s not that you’re less intimate. That’s what I had thought, because of the culture and also maybe the patriarchy, that less sex would bring you farther away from your partner. But now I don’t think that’s true. It’s really cynical to think the only way you can connect with your partner through your whole life is through sex. I find myself feeling closer to my husband than I’ve ever been, and we still have our physical life, but it also has more variety, and that’s okay, too. There should be many models of how to be a human and how to be a sexual being. I’m really against the idea that there’s this one way—having sex with your partner this one way all through your life. There has to be different ways to think about it. I find it kind of oppressive, and also misogynistic, too, because it’s saying that you’re good for one thing. If you’re not having sex, the culture thinks that you’re messed up. Or you’re repressed. Or you’re unhappy. But there are so many ways to bloom!
Guernica: When you attend the eleventh European Congress on Menopause in Amsterdam, you go hoping to learn about the results of studies on women in Singapore, Japan, Korean, Iran, and Turkey. But then you find that smug male doctors promoting hormone therapy and procedures to tighten the vagina, and not these studies, are at the forefront of the conference’s programing. I found myself sharing in your frustration.
Steinke: It was so dark! This doctor from Italy showed a picture of a movie star there who had just started a relationship with a younger woman—the movie star was maybe eighty and the woman was sixty—and the doctor started his talk about menopause by showing this eighty-year-old man, and how all of Italy is now happy that he’s having an affair. I was like, wow, there are so many things wrong about this! I’m going to lose my mind! There were a lot of doctors there wanting to act like they spoke to women and they knew what women really wanted. And what women really wanted were hormones, because they didn’t feel like women without them—a lot of this is very European, this idea of a “woman.”
I went in really hoping I would find all these people and ideas that would you be interesting to me, that I could write about, that could lift me up, and it was so, so the opposite. I have to say that, by the third day, it was hard for me to drag myself over there, because I felt myself getting depressed. There were vaginal rejuvenation lasers in the lobby! The idea that at fifty you have to have your vagina lasered to get it back in shape—I mean, that is really terrible. I didn’t think I was going to write about it because it was so dark and I was so angry, but as time went on, I thought, you’ve got to confront this material. This is the beast right here! You can’t just soft-pedal that.
Guernica: You mention your daughter several times throughout the book, often in relation to “the history” of her body, and juxtapose her experiences with your own. How do you hope your daughter will experience menopause? How do you hope society, in terms of how it views the post-menopausal woman, will have evolved by that time?
Steinke: I worked really hard on that. I really didn’t want her to have any shame. I definitely was inspired by her and her friends. In the book I talk about when she says to me, “Do you know some boys are freaked out about menstruation?” And I was like, “Yeah, I know!” And she continues to be so menstruation proud. No shame ever, about anything!
I partly wrote the book because my daughter and her friends—she’s 24 now—have such a take-no-prisoners attitude. It’s really great. The fact that she and the younger generation can take it further, that’s really exciting to me. And my hope with menopause? I’d like it to be normalized. I think when they teach menstruation and birth in health class, just add menopause on. Completely normal, like a life cycle. Not some big shameful weird thing that that has to be medicated. So that’s my hope. At this point in my life, I’ve read a lot, I know a lot, and I’m at a place that’s very meaningful. There are some struggles, and it’s different, but it’s not a big depressing thing. It’d be good to get the word out on that!
But back to your body question. There’s the idea of staying on the body as a writer. But there’s also the idea of leading with the body, trusting the body. When I had the thing with my back it was hard, because I thought to myself, I don’t think I can hallow this, make it holy. I’m not going to be able to Romanize this kind of pain. But I also tried to think, there’s a reality in this and I should face it. I need to face that my body is different, I am aging. In facing it there is something meaningful. So there’s that part—being honest about both what your body wants, desire-wise, whether its sexual desire, creativity, what you want from your life— but there’s also being authentic to the way you actually feel, rather than having the culture tell you all this fake stuff about how you should feel and act. The desires of the body are powerful throughout each and every age.